guest written by Shahar Link of Mindspire Tutoring & Test Prep
Here’s a common situation on a reading section of a standardized test: you read the passage, you hit the questions, you do your strategies and techniques and all that, and you still get two or three wrong. When you review the problem, you see immediately what you missed – the answer was right there in the previous sentence! But you totally read that whole paragraph! How did you miss it? What happened?
What happened is: you can’t read!
No one wants to hear that they can’t read. Of course I can read! I read all the time!
Of course, we all know how to read, in a sense. But in another sense, that confidence in our reading ability is exactly the problem. In normal everyday reading, we skip words, even whole lines, and don’t really “get” all sorts of things going on in a given text. But it doesn’t matter, as long as we get the gist of it.
But “getting the gist” isn’t enough on a standardized test, like the SAT, ACT, GRE, etc. On these tests, you have to understand everything a question is asking about. (Not necessarily everything in the passage, but everything that relates to any given question.)
So, if you’re not acing the reading section, it’s basically because you can’t read. For example, if a student is scoring about a 500 (out of 800) on the Critical Reading section of the SAT, he or she is only comprehending basic ideas of what he or she is reading for school. The nuance is going right past him.
The problem isn’t the student’s intelligence. The problem is how we teach reading. Reading is taught at very early ages in American schools, and some children are ready to learn to read in 1st grade, but some are not. That doesn’t mean they are stupid and will never read well – it means that their brains are not there yet. Walking is similarly developmental– if a child can’t walk at 9 months, it doesn’t mean she’ll never walk! The problem is, after 1st or 2nd grade, we don’t teach reading anymore. We just assume that students know how to read. But some never really got it; they weren’t ready yet. So they just do their best to fake it for the rest of school, developing useful coping strategies that can usually get them Bs in their classes (which aren’t hard enough to force them to confront the fact that they can’t read). But on the standardized tests, that won’t cut it.
So with many students, we have to work on the basics – decoding, reading every word, following with your pencil, etc. It’s amazing to me how many students are, in a very literal sense, not reading. They substitute familiar (different) words for unfamiliar words. They skip lines. They jumble up letters. This translates into not understanding anything beyond the main idea.
Once students are actually reading what’s on the page, we can get to work on understanding the text.
That’s where even good readers can get stuck. Passages on standardized tests are very challenging. If a student is used to reading relatively easy material, she won’t know how to deal with an SAT-level passage. What I explain is that good readers re-read difficult sections of a text that they don’t understand. This is not conventionally taught.
“Slow down!” That’s what most teachers advise students who don’t understand what they read. Supposedly, “slowing down” will increase their comprehension. But think about the last time you read something and understood it well. Did you read it slowly? Probably not – you read at the pace that is comfortable for you: not too fast, not too slow. Slowing down actually ruins the natural rhythm we have when we are fully engaged and understanding a text. Good readers don’t slow down when they don’t understand something – they re-read it, sometimes 3 or 4 times, but at the same pace.
The point is: reading is a rhythmic activity when it is working well, and messing with that rhythm will harm comprehension. Thus, instead of slowing down, we advise students to re-read until they understand the text. Our experience shows that this simple suggestion works wonders.
One last point: we all know that students who read a lot over the course of their academic careers have a much easier time on the reading section of standardized tests. But the question is: do they read a lot because they just like reading? Or do they like reading because they know how to read? Although I’m oversimplifying, I would suggest that the latter is more to the point. People who read a lot find reading comfortable and relatively easy. If one never learned how to read appropriately, one will never be “a reader,” because the experience will always be cognitively uncomfortable. In my experience, making reading more cognitively comfortable is a crucial step toward developing the kind of strong reading habits that make reading on standardized tests a very do-able thing.
In sum, when it comes to reading, Mindspire addresses 2 areas that very few test-prep companies address: 1) basic decoding issues, which are more prevalent than many teachers even realize and 2) how to understand difficult texts appropriately – by re-reading until your brain takes it all in. We believe that these two lessons are hugely valuable to students – not only for a test, but for their academic career in general.
About the author: Shahar Link has coached hundreds of students toward higher scores on standardized tests over the past 15 years. After earning his Masters degree from Stanford University (with a thesis on the history of IQ testing), Shahar taught high school history and economics for 10 years in New York and California. He recently founded Mindspire Tutoring & Test Prep to put his innovative and effective tutoring system to work for students in the Triangle Area of North Carolina and anyone who has an internet connection.
We live in exciting times when it comes to educational technology. Not only has technology been getting better and better for many years (at a nearly exponential rate), it has also gotten significantly more affordable.
But with the rise of technology comes downsides too. For one thing, distractions abound, from smartphones to online social networks to television to videogames. People — especially young people — spend hours upon hours each and every day staring at screens and interacting with devices that even science fiction writers wouldn’t have predicted would exist 20 years ago.
And it’s starting to show. Student achievement is falling or remaining stagnant by all measures. Why is this? Is it because students themselves are less capable? Hopefully not. They certainly have all the necessary tools for success at their disposal. The resources possessed by the average school today are far and away better than those of a “good” school from many years ago.
So is it the fault of the parents? Again, hopefully not. They say many parents these days spend less time with their children because they’re working so much, but I think that’s a bit of a cop out. I don’t subscribe to the belief that society is getting worse. Maybe we’re just more aware of it thanks to how easily information spreads these days, but people have always been lazy, uncaring, and all manner of other bad things.
That must mean teachers are getting worse, right? Honestly, I think not. I had many wonderful teachers growing up, and I know many wonderful people who decided to devote their careers to teaching students. Blaming teachers for everything is basically scapegoating, and I don’t think that’s fair.
The source of the problem, I think, lies with the solution: technology. With each passing year, technology gets better and better and our lives are changed — sometimes drastically. Do you remember when you first learned about the internet or used your first smartphone? For me, these events were absolutely life-changing, and I say that without hyperbole.
It’s not to say that I could never live in a world without those things (not that I would choose to!), but that the amount of work these inventions save me each and every day is astounding. The list of random things I no longer have to do thanks to new technology could fill a book, and I am truly grateful for it. These advancements allow me to focus my life on other, more useful and satisfying pursuits.
But a change of focus necessitates a reevaluation of what we teach our children. We can no longer waste time teaching kids things that they will simply not need once they get out of school. A couple examples: I never write in cursive, but I do use my phone to send important emails and texts regularly. I don’t remember how to use a library card catalog system, but I can find nearly anything on the internet. I almost never do complex mental math, but I can use a scientific calculator quite well.
In some cases, I was introduced to these things in school. I learned how to type in elementary school, I was introduced to the internet for research, and I had to buy a TI-83 for math class. But I only received a cursory education about each.
I perfected my typing skills by using instant messaging programs and playing online videogames. I figured out how to find (and analyze) truly useful online information when I began work as a research associate at a public policy institute. And I had to teach myself how to program my TI-83 to do my work for me so that I would never have to do a complicated formula again.
These skills that I list are some of the most useful skills that I posses, and they were not adequately honed by a school system that is stuck teaching skills from the past. Education needs to be dynamic, now more so than ever. The best way to do that is to harness the awesome power of educational technology. Only then will we be able to churn out students ready to succeed in the modern world.
If you are a teacher, librarian, or media specialist and are looking to increase the use of educational technology at your school for free, check out The Back to School Giveaway. You can enter simply by leaving a comment on the page, and there is $150,000 worth in premium edtech content available to winners, contributed by six different companies.
If you’re not an educator but know one that might be interested in entering, please feel free to spread the word. We are accepting entries until the end of this month.
(Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love the SAT)
guest written by Barbara Bellisi of the CollegeBound Network
I don’t consider myself old, but since I have taken the SAT almost half a lifetime ago (gulp!), I like to consider myself wise — at least when it comes to standardized testing. Combine that wisdom with a few years’ teaching experience and I discovered that — voila! — I was a natural SAT tutor.
During my training, I had to take a practice SAT. Wow! Either the test got easier or I got a whole lot smarter. OK, so maybe I didn’t have the stress that you college-bounders have when I was filling out those little circles — after all, my college degree is already framed and hanging nicely on a wall — but I can still understand the pressure of a ticking clock and a dull #2 pencil.
Those algebraic equations won’t solve themselves, and someone’s got to fill in the blank with the correct vocabulary word, right? That’s why you’ve got to add a little dose of humor to your test-taking strategy. That’s right, future valedictorians and NMSQT finalists — I’m telling YOU that it’s OK to look at the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, and any other hellish acronym directly in the face and give it a big LOL.
Need some help in finding the funny? Then put down the prep books and chew on some of these test-taking tips instead of that dirty pencil eraser:
1 – Hone your concentration skills.
There are two major problems with any standardized test: 1) It is long, and 2) It is boring. Practice concentrating at home by working on one assignment at a time instead of skipping around between subjects. Too tired? Then veg out in front of the TV for a half an hour, but no flipping around the channels. Bonus points if you can watch C-SPAN for a full 20 minutes without falling asleep.
2 – Make some noise.
Do you need complete silence when doing your homework? Break yourself out of that silly habit, because you have a better chance of getting a perfect score on the SAT than you do of getting a quiet testing room. There will always be a student who sniffles throughout the entire test, and there will always be a proctor who doesn’t know how to whisper. And, if you’re (un)lucky like I was, you might be able to hear the football team in all its grunting glory practice right outside your window. Woo hoo!
3 – Perfect your circle-filling ability.
Learn to fill in those answer circles with no more than three swipes of your #2 pencil. Any more and you’re just wasting precious time — time that is better spent erasing those circles once you’ve realized you skipped a row on your answer sheet.
4 – Don’t get too wrapped up in the reading comprehension.
Yes, every once in a while, a really interesting passage will appear on a standardized test. But this is the SAT, not a leisurely Sunday morning with the newspaper. Standardized tests are not written for your personal enjoyment; get through those reading sections, answer the questions, and be done with it.
And some tips for the day of the test:
Don’t mess with breakfast. I don’t care if butterflies are playing Marco Polo in your stomach. Scarf down a granola bar before you sit for the test. Otherwise, the audible growls coming from your stomach later will cause you to lose focus.
Layer your clothing. Some people get the chills when they get nervous. Other people have hot flashes. All bets are off for what will happen to you on the day of the test, so prepare for anything by wearing several layers. If you need to remove a piece of clothing, do so quickly and quietly — this is the SAT, not a Vegas show.
Don’t make plans for after the test. Instead, go home and crash on your bed, the couch, or in your little brother or sister’s wading pool. Stay there for a while. You’ve earned it.
guest written by Eric Clark of Quincy Tutoring
In my role as Assistant Director of Academic Services at Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) in Quincy MA, part of my responsibility is proctoring the Accuplacer. Quite often, people call asking several different questions because they don’t understand why the assessment is being used, or what it is used for. Below I will address three common Accuplacer questions, after reading you should have a good understanding of the Accuplacer.
What is the Accuplacer?
The Accuplacer is a college placement test that is one of many assessments in the College Board family. The Accuplacer is a comprehensive assessment tool, which consists of six content strands (for content breakdown click here). Does that sound intimidating? Don’t be afraid, it is not very common that all six strands are used. It is up to the discretion of the institution as to which test strands are used to assess incoming students. At ENC, for example, we have opted to use the Reading Comprehension, Arithmetic, Elementary Algebra, and the Written Test. Each test has a developmental course attached to it, and if a student fails to meet the minimum benchmark, the student is automatically enrolled in that course. If you didn’t do well the first time, you can potentially retake the test in 30 days.
Why do I need to take the Accuplacer?
Want the honest answer? The college/university wants to assess your academic skill set. They may want to do this for several different reasons.
SAT scores are the most common reason students need to complete the Accuplacer. If any of your individual SAT scores failed meet the institutional standard, you will be required to take the Accuplacer (or equivalent test). The results of the placement test will identify the appropriate classes for the student to enroll.
Secondly, some schools do not require SAT, and the Accuplacer is a great way to identify appropriate classes for the student to take. Each institution wants to make sure they are not placing students in classes that are above their current academic ability. In the past, I have worked with many students that have earned their bachelors and were required to complete the Accuplacer when they were applying to a specialized program, like nursing. Please don’t be discouraged! Each program wants to assess your foundational knowledge. This isn’t a knock on your knowledge or the institution where you earned your undergraduate degree.
How can I prepare for the Accuplacer?
The initial answer would be tutoring, or small group instruction. Tutoring is a terrific way to learning the content if the student needs a professional to deliver the content in a way that is easy to comprehend. Not every student needs tutoring, and TestSoup is a great supplement to the online practice tests. TestSoup has a terrific battery of study materials that can be used on almost any electronic device. I would recommend tying the student material for yourself.
[Editor's Note: To try out our ACCUPLACER system, see our test page here.]
About the author: Eric Clark is the founder and CEO of Quincy Tutoring, an online tutor network. Quincy Tutoring also offers affordable standardized test prep, and fully endorses TestSoup’s flashcard system. Follow Eric on Twitter and Facebook.
Worried about that big test coming up soon? Got finals, the SAT or even the GMAT causing your stress levels to rise and your heart to beat faster and faster every day? Here are some tips to ensure you prepare the best way possible so that you can take your test with your head high, confident of your cognitive abilities.
Don’t cram all of your studying in the day before, or even two days before. Studies show that it is best to study little by little, every night for at least a few days. This will help you remember things more easily and ensures that you give yourself ample time to prepare for every question a test may throw at you. Cramming it all in the night before will only make it more difficult to retain all of the information and may also cause you to lose sleep and raise stress levels as you rush to study everything hours before the start of your exam.
Get a good night’s sleep the day before your test. Studies prove that much of the memory retention you have occurs during sleep, so in order for you to benefit most from your studying you have to sleep so that the information can soak into your mind. A good nights rest will always leave you feeling refreshed, energized and sharp in the morning: perfect test taking mode. You should also be sure to eat a big breakfast, as this will help keep you focused on the task at hand instead of allowing your mind to wander while your test sits idly in front of you, the clock ticking away…
During the test, be sure to pace yourself accordingly. Chances are you have a limited amount of time to test, so you should be sure to skip over the questions that initially give you trouble so you are sure to make it to all of the problems you know with confidence.
Remember to relax in the days leading up to the test as well. The second you start to freak out over the test is the second you start to lose focus and concentration, and eventually it may cause you to lose points. If you stay optimistic about things and remain focused and poised, you stand a much better chance of studying efficiently and effectively. Relaxing before a test will also set your mind at ease—you need to be sure that you remain grounded when the time comes so that you can delve into the depths of your memory and pull out the answer that you know is lurking in there somewhere.